An insight into the publishing world…

Posts tagged ‘humour’

Man at the Helm by Nina Stibbe

Despite being a lover of all things comedy, I haven’t read a comedic book in quite a while. This was a great choice to get started again.

manat the helm

When their parents split up, nine-year-old Lizzie Vogel, her sister and brother move with their mother to a slightly hostile village in the English countryside. Their mother immediately takes to drinking and compulsive playwriting – neither of which impresses villagers already deeply suspicious of an attractive divorcee. Desperate to fit in, Lizzie and her sister hatch a plan: secretly invite any suitable (and even unsuitable) men to meet (and hopefully marry) their mother…

This is definitely a novel of extremes, which is of course for comedic value. The girls’ mother is not only a screw-up, she’s a colossal screw-up and seems to fail at everything. Their father is the Ultimate Villain in the picture, and the village all but witch-hunts the family. But these extremes are told in the voice and perspective of a nine-year-old, and so it makes sense that a child would remember things in this way.

I often find myself disbelieving readers when they say ‘I laughed out loud’ at a book, because it’s rare that I find something so hilarious in a book that it brings that out of me. However, this book really did make me chuckle quite audibly, which is interesting on a packed overseas flight. The book was the perfect remedy for that weary fatigue caused by long-distance travel.

The only thing I felt was lacking was any real loyalty or feelings towards any of the characters, except perhaps a small bit of contempt for the kids’ mother for being so useless, but even then that was only a half-hearted emotion roused on my part. What I will say, though, is that perhaps this wasn’t really needed. The novel serves it purpose in being very entertaining and a very easy read.

I think overall, what the narrative lacked in winning over any loyalty for any of the characters, it made up for in humour. The comedy felt effortless, it didn’t feel forced and Stibbe didn’t have to conform to any clichés. She is definitely a very funny writer and the book is well worth a read.

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More Than You Can Say by Paul Torday

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This was one of the books that I bought at the Hull Central Library Book Sale a couple of months back. Been a busy few weeks but I finally have had the time to review it!

Traumatised by a tour of duty in Iraq, Richard Gaunt returns home to his girlfriend with very little of a plan in mind. Finding it difficult to settle into civilian life, he turns to drink and gambling – and is challenged to a bet he cannot resist. All he has to do is walk from London to Oxford in under twelve hours. But what starts as a harmless venture turns into something altogether different when Richard recklessly accepts an unusual request from a stranger…

I enjoyed this book immensely. I just want to say it from the outset. Normally my book reviews are written almost like a literary essay; they take a while to write because I dissect, and analyse, and evaluate. But this is one of those books which I was too busy enjoying, and a story with which I was too easily swept away to remember to earmark a page or make a note in my book review journal. So in fact this is may not be as detailed as my usual reviews, but this is for a very positive reason. I was too busy having a good time reading!

More Than You Can Say has it all: action, comedy, emotion, depth, interesting characters and a compelling plot. It plays with your emotions and makes you re-evaluate the big issues. It takes the important and sensitive subject of war, of PTSD and depression, and places it in a world and narrative that makes it easy enough to explore without it dragging you down.

What I loved most about this book was how it shone a light on the traumas and difficulties that soldiers and army veterans face not only in the battlefield but in day-to-day life as well.

I knew why people behaved like that. They were sick in the head. I was sick in the head. We had all seen things we should never have had to see, done things we should never have had to do. And all of us, when we came back from Iraq or Afghanistan, were constantly being reminded, every time we opened a newspaper or switched on the television, that we had done it for a cause the grateful public did not believe in any more, if they ever had. In the old days, it was ‘my country right or wrong’: when things happened that seemed to cross every boundary of human morality or decency you could always tell yourself, I suppose, that you were serving your country. But we had fought in wars that few people at home really cared about. No wonder some of us behaved badly.

Perhaps what makes the main character, Richard Gaunt, so utterly compelling is that neither he or the author pretend that he is in any way perfect. He is innately likeable – he cares deeply about people, has a good sense of humour, and has a desire for justice and fairness. But he also has his flaws – he is aggressive, cynical, often subdued, lazy and unmotivated, and often does things without considering the consequences or indeed without much thought at all. But you get the feeling that he’s justified, sometimes, for the way he behaves. He’s been through horrific things and come out the other end alive, but can we really blame him for not emerging undamaged?

This book taught me a lot about the war in Iraq, but also gave me a deeper understanding of its impact as it explores consequences much more complicated than cold hard facts and numbers. It explores Richard’s past and current relationships with people around him and how they are affected by the war. Take, for instance, his ex-fiancée, Emma. She is an attractive person, inside and out. She is loving and supportive, incredibly patient, and puts up with a lot from Richard. But even eventually she is driven away by his erratic and selfish behaviour, behaviour that Richard puts down to his horrific experiences in the army. He cannot function properly as a result of it and, by extension, neither can his relationships.

It is not all doom-and-gloom, though, as Richard definitely matures throughout the book. After a while he comes to realise that he can no longer continue to use the war as a scapegoat or an excuse for the way his life has turned out.

But in my heart I knew that I couldn’t just blame it all on the wars I had been in. I wasn’t even sure whether the fracture that had broken open deep within me was simply a consequence of the things I had seen; of the things I had heard; of the things I had done. When a stone shatters in the frost, is it because of the frost, or is it because the fault line was always there, deep inside the stone?

It takes a long time and many amusing and not-so-amusing events for him to realise that he is still in control of what happens in his life, and that he doesn’t have to let the past dictate his present and his future. For this reason, the book ends on a note of hope. Things can get better, if only Richard wants them to.

I would urge anyone who has been in the war, knows anyone who has been in a war, or anyone who hasn’t, to read this book. It’s funny, compelling, engaging, and thought-provoking. It’s full of fast-paced action and meaningful dialogue. It is both educational and entertaining, and is a true example of brilliant modern literature.

Introducing Writer and Playwright Janice Fosse

Today’s interview is with Janice Fosse, a children’s playwright and writer who is a connection of mine on Twitter (never underestimate the power of social media in networking!) Here, in her charming and comic style, she discusses her love of writing, the difficulties of writing for children and her optimism in the face of a very difficult publishing market…

The colourful and lovely Janice Fosse

The colourful and lovely Janice Fosse

Please tell me a little bit about yourself and your career.

I have been telling stories my whole life. From organizing make-believe on the playground to circulating stories in serial format to devoted readers in high school via spiral notebooks, I mistakenly thought my love of telling stories translated into a love of performing, and for many years my educational focus was on acting, with writing stories nothing more than a diversionary hobby.

After completing the requirements for a BFA in Acting from Augustana College in Rock Island, IL, I found myself with one more year of school to go, and decided to pursue a second BA in English with a creative writing concentration. I finished the degree in one year, and found that writing had been the underlying passion all along. While performing is fun, you are always saying someone else’s words. It turned out that I wanted to be the one to make the words, the worlds, and the rules. You could call it creative megalomania, I suppose!

Upon graduation I secured a job in the public access department of a small-town cable company as a producer. I wrote scripts for commercials, did voiceover work, produced television shows, and even helped create and was chief question writer for a local-access game show that gained modest popularity. Writing was always there in the background though.  

After eleven years at the cable company I became an asset, which led to me being liquidated when the cable company sought to purchase a larger media outlet. With eleven weeks of severance pay, I found myself with the free time I needed to finally write a book from beginning to end. I managed it in eleven weeks, completely hated every word and abandoned the work without revising it. During that time I also organized an improvisational comedy troupe and skated with the local roller derby league, where for a time I led the league in ejections for poor sportsmanship. Still, writing was there. By this time I had created the basis of a fantasy realm called Ethia, to which my current series of novels refers. With eleven years of dabbling, I’ve managed to come up with a rich history and mythology for Ethia, which has been an invaluable resource from which to draw. I hope someday to novelize some of the incomplete snippets I’ve written about Ethia’s history into some sort of cohesive work.

The trick is writing a play that the children can understand and appreciate, while still providing something that will be entertaining for the parents to watch.

There are now far more writers than there are places for them in the market. What made you realise that your writing might be commercially successful one day?

A friend of mine sent some of my unpolished science fiction to an editor for critique without my knowledge, and the editor was impressed enough to suggest that, with some tweaking, my story could be quite successful. I’ve been working on that story for the last couple of years (with a rather large hiatus due to the birth of my daughter), and have one novel in the series in revision, and a second over halfway through the first draft.

How did you get into the theatre industry and what is the biggest challenge in writing for children?

I met the owner of Stars of Tomorrow, a company that teaches acting and play production to school-age children, through my work with the improv comedy troupe. I became one of their senior instructors, thanks to my theatre degree, and began writing plays for the classes. To date I have had over a dozen plays performed by students in classes throughout the Northern Illinois area, which have been extremely well-received by their audiences.

For the most part, when children are performing a play the audience is going to be largely comprised of parents and other adult family members. The trick is writing a play that the children can understand and appreciate, while still providing something that will be entertaining for the parents to watch. I write comedies, and I try to find that tricky place where the humor is appropriate and entertaining for both adults and children. Many of the characters I write in my plays are wryly self-aware, and the whole play comes off as a little bit cheeky, which usually fits the bill for all parties involved.

Why do you enjoy writing for children?

I enjoy the opportunity to be silly, to stretch my imagination and sense of humor without having to cater to the inherent cynicism of adulthood. It’s also important to write things for children without pandering to them. Kids will rise to the intellectual level with which they are presented, and I enjoy the opportunity to teach, through writing paired with instruction, various aspects of comedic theory, so that they know why what they’re saying is funny.

Why is it so important for writers and publishers to engage in social media now?

With the current market saturation and the ease of creating an online presence, writers and publishers must engage in social media if they are going to get anywhere with promotion and publicity. Unfortunately, one of the things I’ve noticed happening, particularly with Twitter, is that some authors misunderstand the difference between using social media to build an online following and simply spamming adverts about their book every few hours. Social media is an absolute necessity for writers and publishers because there is no freer and more easily accessible marketplace for your book than the Internet, but it should be used wisely. Sharing blog posts, thoughts about writing, and anything else gives what would otherwise be nothing more than a faceless advertising machine a human feel and more of a sense of connection with potential readers.

How do you maintain confidence and motivation in your efforts to become published, especially if you’re ever rejected by a publisher?

For many years I thought that nothing I wrote would ever matter if it wasn’t picked up by a mainstream publisher, got worldwide distribution and a movie option, possibly a spinoff TV series, a theme park, etc. However, the more I’ve gotten into my story and learned to love the characters and the world in which they reside, I find myself caring less and less about the end result, as long as I get to tell the story. When the story is the most important thing, success comes from within, and no amount of outside rejection can touch it. I hope.

What do you think your writing can offer readers that others might not?

I try to blend emotional honesty in my characters with fantastical situations, while incorporating elements of almost-believable science fiction. I’ve been told my greatest strengths are in my humor and my characters – they are very much alive, and likeable (even the villains, in their own way), and they are, I hope, realistic. Even when the situations surrounding them are anything but. I like to think of my characters as atypical heroes – they are insanely human (even when they aren’t); they’re flawed and not necessarily pretty, a little bit dorky and absolutely relatable. My books are for the kids who read books but never see characters all that much like themselves reflected back in the pages.

I enjoy the opportunity to be silly, to stretch my imagination and sense of humor without having to cater to the inherent cynicism of adulthood. 

What are the biggest differences between playwriting and writing novels? Do you have a preference between the two?

For whatever reason, playwriting comes much more easily for me than novel writing does. I can kick out a final draft of a play in a matter of days, while novels are far more arduous. However, I enjoy novel writing far more than playwriting. In a novel, you get to climb into the characters’ heads and see the world from their perspective. In a play, motivation is implied and not directly discussed, where it is one of the main foci of writing a novel.

What is your personal view on self-publishing?

It’s tempting, for sure. It offers the possibility of total creative control – everything from the story to the cover and all publicity. Which is a double-edged sword, because it means the author is responsible for everything from the story to the cover and all publicity. The more I read about self-publishing, the more tempting it sounds. However, in the YA market, I think it’s a bit more difficult to self-publish, because metrics show that YA readers still prefer print books to ebooks, which presents a larger upfront cost, plus figuring out ways to get your book into the major retailers. They get grouchy when you just stick copies of your book on their shelves!

And finally, what do you like to read?

Right now I’m reading Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series from the beginning, as well as Parkland by Vincent Bugliosi. I read anything I can get my hands on; science fiction, fantasy, YA of all sorts, histories and philosophies, books on writing and folklore and utter trash. A writer needs to have a deep well from which to draw, including books that are so awful they serve as a reminder that even bad books get published. I do hope that my books don’t end up on that list for anyone. But, hey, if they do, at least they serve as some sort of inspiration.

You can follow Janice on Twitter @JaniceFosse and learn more about her and her work at janicefosse.com

Do you have any questions for Janice? Post in the comments below and I will get your questions answered!

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